Todd Bol was a man with a simple idea; to help bring people together using books.
He built the first ‘little free library’ – a wooden book shelter where people could swap books for free – in 2009. It quickly grew into a global movement, with some 75,000 registered Little Free Libraries (LFL) around the world.
When he died, he left behind a legacy built on communities; on reading; on sharing ideas. The libraries not only provide access to books, but builds bonds between neighbours and fosters creative expression. In many ways, these little book swaps are pieces of public art; becoming monuments to human kindness and altruism.
Yet it is this legacy that now seems to be under threat.
The Bol family are becoming entangled in a dispute with the new management of the Little Free Library organisation – who they accuse of putting profit over protecting the core ethos of the Little Free Library movement.
In an exclusive statement provided to Nothing in the Rulebook, the Bol family have asked the organisation “to stop applying for trademarks that inhibit the natural growth of little libraries.” and plead with the company to respect Todd’s vision, so that “making and using libraries [is] organic and unencumbered.”
In June, LittleFreeLibrary.org applied for trademark control of “wooden boxes with a storage area for books”. Additionally, LittleFreeLibrary.org now stakes claim to word variations beyond their trademarked name “Little Free Library”, such as “little library” and “little libraries”.
In doing so, these increased trademark controls may limit people’s choices going forward – potentially even preventing communities from coming together. As Tony Bol, Todd’s brother, explains:
“Todd knew about limitations on the usage of LFLs trademark name, that’s somewhat why he embraced everyone and let the movement grow to what its become. It took on legs of its own and expanded in different directions, including Pantries, Blessing Boxes, and so on. Todd loved that and encouraged people to engage with one another.”
Having a trademark for “a wooden box with a storage area for books” associated with the LFL name also means that at any point LFL could mandate book sharing groups or individuals register their library with LFL for a fee and would be able to dictate those fees. Putting these potential market driven actions in place runs counter to Todd’s philosophies.
LFL claims they have registered for further new trademarks to ward off for-profit competition, yet his brother, Tony, shares a story about Todd that runs counter to this narrative:
“A few years back, Todd was irked by someone selling a library that didn’t meet his standards, so he bought and modified it. He sent it back to the guy with a better design and told him that he should only sell libraries that can withstand all weather conditions.”
“Todd was incredible that way, always reaching out to others in surprising ways. He always felt that there was room for everyone. He didn’t see competition, he saw a potential partner.”
A plea to supporters
LFL’s movement to secure a greater market share should perhaps come as little surprise; as the new executive director of the LittleFreeLibraries organisation is a former CitiBank, Morgan Stanley and Deluxe Corp. executive, reporting to a board chair who is a current Wells Fargo senior executive.
Yet this does not detract from the deep sense of loss and grief clearly felt by the Bol family, who say they are “saddened by specific changes that expand and overreach LittleFreeLibrary.org’s trademark controls.”
In a plea to readers, library and book lovers everywhere, the Bol family close their statement with a call for the Little Free Library organisation to “listen to the people” and ask supporters to “join us in protecting the Little Free Library movement and ask LittleFreeLibrary.org to abandon its expanded trademark applications and overreach claims.”